Remembering Becky

Remembering Becky

I first got to know Becky through my wife, since she worked with Becky’s fiancée. They had bonded over a shared love of professional hockey, something that is not common in Wisconsin.

We’d invited them to our home for a game between our two clubs in late 2006 – but it became the night everything changed.  On a snack run to the kitchen, Becky quietly tagged along and started asking me questions about something called mesenchymal chondrosarcoma – and was I familiar with it? Even though I’d been a cancer provider for years by this point, I’d never heard of it. Then she confided that she’d been diagnosed with it, and it was already metastatic.

Naturally I started reading up on the condition, and what I found out wasn’t reassuring. Mesenchymal chondrosarcoma is exceedingly rare. It was first described in the 1950’s, and less than a thousand cases have ever been reported. Even worse, it usually responded very poorly to chemotherapy or radiation therapy, though surgery could be somewhat successful – and at first Becky seemed to be one of those surgical successes. She underwent extensive operations to remove the multiple tumors from her lungs. After that, she went through aggressive chemotherapy to kill off any cancer left in her body. It was harsh, difficult treatment and she spent a lot of time in the hospital, but she recovered. And for ten years after that, it seemed like she’d beaten the odds – every checkup and every scan looked good – and she felt good, with no apparent side effects of the treatments she’d gone through.

My wife and I thought we’d won, too, because our friendship grew during that time. We got to know the rest of her family, and she became an aunt to my two older daughters.

But in 2010, she developed pain in her left side and sudden kidney failure; the cancer was back, and had so overgrown her left kidney that it needed to be removed – and the echocardiogram she had as part of preoperative evaluation showed the cancer had even grown into her heart itself. Her care team then proposed a more radical approach: open heart surgery to remove the tumor there, followed by removal of the kidney once she’d recovered enough. Though it was an extreme thing to undergo, Becky prepared for surgery as she did for all her battles – with incredible strength and dignity.  Both of these surgeries took a huge physical toll on her, but her spirits and love for life remained firmly intact.

After all that, it was time for more chemotherapy and Becky asked Green Bay Oncology to direct that part of her care so she could be closer to home. That was when I had the honor of not only being her friend, but of participating in her care.

Over the next 16 months she went through two different chemotherapy regimens without a break, and. I was amazed how she was able to differentiate her two lives, the treatment side and the normal life side.  When we met socially, away from the cancer clinic, she never brought up her condition.  She told me once that her cancer might dictate the length of her life, but it wouldn’t define her life – and that she wouldn’t even give it more space by talking about it.

And it did dictate how long she lived, unfortunately. The cancer eventually spread to her other kidney. I know, because I was the one who told her about it. I was the one that told her time had run out. But even then she kept living – after several failed attempts to call her to set up hospice care, I found out she was at work training her successor – and this was four days before she died. That’s how Becky was, unselfish and dedicated, and that’s how we remember her: Becky the loving sister, aunt, and stepmother; not Becky the cancer patient. My oldest daughter still talks about Auntie Becky, and something of Becky still lives in the stories she tells her sisters who didn’t get to meet her, and in the memories I still share from time to time with Becky’s sister.

I’ve known and befriended many patients and their families during their care, but Becky was the only patient I’ve ever had who was first a friend. There was something about that perspective that made me better appreciate how important end-of-life care is for people, and helped me grow as a healthcare professional. I hope Becky knows how grateful I am for her friendship over the many years, and what she taught me professionally.

Special thanks to the family of Becky.